Thursday, 18 February 2010

Disabled with laughter

Talk in yesterday's post of the shameful intersection of disability and laughter brought to mind one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life. I recount the incident as I'm still not entirely sure what exactly happened and it may be that writing it down will prove cathartic.

A group of us were staying in a B&B on the Spey in Scotland for a long weekend. It was a beautiful place and we spent every day out and about, fishing, pony-trekking, walking. We even managed a bit of skiing, bouncing along the top of some sleet-brushed heather. The B&B offered dinner and as we were in the middle of nowhere we ate there each night. The food was great.

One evening we sat down to dinner at the large dining table. There was, I think, just enough room for two other smaller tables, one in the window alcove at the front of the room and another butting up to the side wall nearest the door. We came down in dribs and drabs having taken it in turns to use the two baths that were ours.

Joining us on the table near the wall were a couple in early old age, friendly and thoroughly nice. We introduced ourselves and exchanged pleasantries and experiences. They were pretty fit it seemed, out walking all day, despite her having a severe hunchback - she was bent over nearly double. It was great that they didn't seem to let this stop them enjoying an active life.

Anyway, we left them to their meal. We were now just waiting for one of our party, R. He entered the room, stooped over, his hand on the small of his back and a grimace on his face. He was a chronic sufferer from a bad back so it was no surprise that the day's activities had wrought some damage.

He saw we'd noticed his discomfort and smiled bravely. "The bells, the bells!" he cried as he came over to us. "Quasimodo - I can barely stand up straight! Quasimodo! Quasimodo!" As he walked, he exaggerated his stoop.

I looked around the table. I saw on everyone else's face the look of horror I must have been wearing on mine. We looked at him, silently pleading him not to mention Quasimodo again or make any references to "the bells". Then for some reason one of us - I won't ascribe blame as it's not fair - stifled a crazy giggle. It was an involuntary reaction to the combination of embarrassment, panic and shock we were experiencing. One by one we fell under the influence of this malign hilarity until the whole table was quaking with the grunts and shakes of a sick, stifled laughter.

R looked at us with incredulity - he knew nothing of the brave hunchbacked woman and her admirable husband. "What's up he asked? What's the matter? All I say is something about feeling like Quasimodo and you all crack up! What's so funny?"

Could this get any worse? How could we make it stop? There was nothing to be done: we were caught in our paroxysms like flies in honey, thrashing uselessly.

Eventually one of us managed to inhale enough air to mouth that R should sit down - we'd tell him later what was up. We chomped joylessly through the dinner, hardly talking. We could barely meet each other's eyes we were so ashamed.

Seeking to make amends, to at least show friendship from there on in, I asked whether the couple would like join us for a game of scrabble afterwards (there was a cosy sitting room with board games next door). Thankfully, the husband said he would; his wife said she was feeling very tired and would go up to bed.

They would certainly have heard everything R had said as well as our humourless sniggers. But they gave no indication of taking umbrage. The husband remained perfectly pleasant throughout the rest of the evening. Perhaps, incredibly, he had understood?

It's an incident I'll never forget and which still fills me with shame and, even now, a degree of disbelief. It's difficult to credit: we knew in every fibre that it was wrong, it wasn't even fun at the time - it was excruciating -  but nevertheless it happened. Disability and laughter.


worm said...

That's what I was going to write in your post yesterday, but I didn't have the time - isn't it true that when we laugh at something like that, in most cases we're not laughing at the person or the disability itself, but at the taboos of our society of pointing publicly at the disability? Its certainly the seam that modern stand-ups like Ricky Gervais seem to mine

Sean said...

Sounds like a Gene Hunt moment.

"Now. Yesterday's shooting. The dealers are all so scared we're more likely to get Helen Keller to talk. The Paki in a coma's about as lively as Liberace's dick when he's looking at a naked woman, all in all this investigation's going at the speed of a spastic in a magnet factory."

Brit said...

Yeah, that's a Taboo Giggling Fit, rather than the cruel 'Joey Deacon' kiddy thing (yes we had that at our school too. A "Deacon" was a common insult for clumsiness or stupidity).

I had an awful Taboo Giggling Fit at a funeral once. Still cringe to recall it.

Anonymous said...


You aren't the only one.

Gadjo Dilo said...

I was once walking along a London street around Hallowe'en time and saw a small girl with what seemed to be a fright mask peering through a car window at me. I went up close and made a scary face at her in a jovial manner. She burst into tears - she wasn't wearing a mask, she had a terrible facial disfigurement. True story. OMG.

worm said...

haha gadjo that made me laugh out loud!

worm said...

ps. I'm obviously going to hell

Anonymous said...

My wife and I once went skiing and found the hill given over to a special day for disabled skiers. One-legged skiers, armless skiers, even blind skiers. It was mind-boggling and it was impossible not to be blown away by the tremendous investment of volunteer time and equipment design that was behind it all. All the regular skiers were dutifully respectful, solemn and encouraging. But going up the lift, we passed over a group of paraplegics in specially designed sleds-on-skis, and I overheard their coach announce: "OK, today we're going to work on developing our upper bodies." That instantly brought me waves of hysteria I couldn't control for hours. I had a lot of very severe looks, but fortunately only She-Who-Is-Perfect knew how warped I was.

Brit said...

You're going to hell too, Peter.

My teenage cousin was once boasting about the exploits of her girls' cricket side. I got into trouble for laughing uncontrollably when I discovered they'd been playing against a blind team.

Also, it would have taken a man of stone not to find hilarious the documentary a few years ago about the UK society of narcoleptics. Their AGM, where nobody could stay awake for more than a couple of minutes, including during their own speeches, was comic gold. At one point every single person in the room was asleep.

worm said...

..and Brit, lets not forget 'John's not mad' - the 1989 documentary about that kid with Tourettes

Sean said...

Today seems to be a bit of a confessional, so here is my tuppence worth.

I went to pick my wife up from the hospital and instead of waiting outside in the car like I usually do, I needed a number 2 so off I went to find a loo.

At the time the hospital was in the middle of a revamp and toilets were not in use, and I was ready to go.

Thus I found myself in the disabled loo, but no ordinary disabled loo, this was a high tech one on the cardiac intensive care ward.

So the first part of my business was complete, and being a little "euro" in these matters, I like to wash up afterwards. So I pressed the flush in order to clear the bowl ready for a rub down.

Except it was not the flush I pressed, it was the emergency button, and being a very special loo, there was three doors leading into it, one from the nursing station, one from the ward and one joining the next loo, which was in use.

In a flash, with all the alarms going, the team of nurses that was helping the patient next door was with me, two seconds after that a swat team of nurses and doctors armed with the latest in medical physics arrived, and being quite a large loo, it seemed like all of them fitted quite neatly into my private little space.

They all looked very grim at me while I was apologising trying to look like its a normal thing to take your trousers off in the loo, I glanced over to the other cubicle to offer my a few contrite words, but the very large woman sitting half naked on the loo was hyperventilating and did not seem in the mood for my regrets.

Since this happened the loo now has a passkey lock to stop opportunists like me causing mayhem, the revamp is now complete.

So to Brits strict criteria, its a bit off topic as its not strictly a disability story, but it does involve a disabled toilet.

Brit said...

A classic, Sean.

(For the record, I'm all in favour of off-topic meanderings - I was just tickled by the way you managed to crowbar the Mossad killing into a post about Zen)

Sean said...

brit, You are probably right, I am a little too tabloid.

"Zen and the art of caravan security" is not going to grab me whereas "Zen and the art of assassination" is a pre order, but essentially I think they could well be the same book?

If you are thinking of a commission, this Girl might be a better bet than my Drunken ramblings